How can we support our children in developing a healthy notion of respect of others, in ways that are natural and not forced by the adults?
How can we give children a sense that we are all one another’s examples, and that their behaviour impacts others?
Those are serious questions, each time I spend time with one child, or with two children from the same family, I keep them clearly in mind so I can support the child in a growing awareness of his power to destroy, or to uplift.
I recently faced a situation with two little boys- brothers- I care for, whom I have known for almost two years. The elder demonstrated a behaviour which I could not accept because it was disrespectful to me: burping in my face. I knew he was preparing to do this and I did not warn him because I wanted to speak about the result of his action and help him realize the impact of it so he would have a chance to course-correct in the future.
After burping, he looked at me and started laughing, which I did not take personally. I waited for a moment and shifted my energy from playful to serious, and asked him without judgment what he believed I was feeling at this moment. He was surprised that I was not offended and that, on the contrary, I had approached him from a place of vulnerability, without any aggression.
I waited, and then I watched as he was pondering my question. I could see in his eyes that he was now conscious that this seemingly trivial act of burping in my face even if it was not meant to hurt me had been perceived as hurtful, and had created disconnection between us.
As he could not find his words, I guided him and asked more precise questions, «Do you think I feel valued when you do this?», «Do friends do this to one another?». And I waited again to give him time to hear my questions. After saying it was just a joke, he eventually said sorry and I appreciated that he sincerely meant it.
While this was happening, his younger brother was watching, and did not say a word. He was intently listening, thinking also for himself, as though it was he who had acted as his brother had.
What helped me have this conversation with a 7 year old and a 5 year old without them running away was my authoritative presence. I was fully present with the words I was telling this child, and took his action of burping in my face seriously, so he saw that as a child he can have a profound impact on others around him, adults included.
Later in the afternoon, as we were leaving the park, I witnessed a secretive preparation between the two boys. Seeing they had their water thermos in hand, and that the younger one was moving in my direction, his mouth awkwardly closed and with mischievous eyes, I guessed that he was intending to spit water at my back.
I will emphasize that these specific children were only doing what children of their age do and try, testing limits; which is perfectly healthy and to be wished for – for how can children learn if they do not try out with the adults who love them and will take the time to gently coach them?
This time, I pre-empted the action by saying to the younger boy «You know, I would not like to be wet and for somebody to spit at me, even as a joke. I would not feel very happy after that». This boy looked at his elder brother, trying to check with him and validate that he should spit his water in the plants instead. But the latter encouraged him with his eyes to proceed.
The long time it was taking for the younger boy to react indicated to me that he did not want to do so, and that I needed to react and support him in his will not to follow the direction of his older brother, which contradicted his inner voice. I bent at their level, and asked the younger brother if he had lost his tongue as he was not speaking with us. His brother interjected that actually he wanted to spit water at me.
I jumped in and tested the older brother: «I am not sure this is what your brother wants to do. Actually, I wonder if you would not like to do that and instead asked your little brother to do it for you».
My firm tone of voice indicated, again, I was serious about what I was saying to him. As he did not reply, I asked him to think about his responsibility in this and the example he was showing to his brother. «What do you think your brother will feel when he is scolded for something he did not want to do?», «Do you think he will trust you?», «Is that what you want to happen?».
I felt impressed when he nodded that no, this was not what he wanted. I saw something had come into realization for this child, that he did not want to manipulate his sibling, and be alienated from him. And that perhaps he had not imagined that he could impact him in such a negative way.
Children need to learn from us how to behave. First as we model what respectful behaviours look like, and then as we explain and discuss with them in a conscious manner the impact of those off-limit behaviours, that will inevitably happen. This does not mean minimizing their action, nor being overly negative, but simply giving them another reading of their behaviour, and then believing in them to choose what’s right the next time.
We should let them behave as they initially planned, without interference, (as long as no harm to self, others or the environment is involved), and then correct. But, correct with them, by leading a discussion in which they will participate and realize the extent of their power. By helping them understand that they hold responsibility and that they can choose according to their will what contributes to the common good.
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a Lifetime.
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Caring for the Gifted Child